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Pursuing a career in theater is always financially risky, but it just got a little easier for Desiré Graham.

The 22-year-old Graham (CFA’18), who wants to study physical theater and help launch an experimental theater group for artists of color, is one of three winners of the 2018 Esther B. and Albert S. Kahn Career Entry Awards for graduating College of Fine Arts artists. Because of the award, she now has $12,000 to begin achieving her goals.

“This grant has made me so positive, knowing I have this kind of support,” Graham says. “I really feel like I have longevity in this career path.”

The School of Theatre grad joins Murat Çolak (CFA’18), who earned a doctorate in musical arts in composition and theory at the School of Music, and new media and video artist Alia Coleman (CFA’18), who received a master’s in fine arts from the School of Visual Arts.

Çolak will use his grant to create a modern opera about a utopian Islamic society, while Coleman aspires to work with young African and Caribbean artists to create new video art pieces.

Established in 1985, the Kahn awards are funded by a $1 million endowment from the late Esther Kahn (SED’55, Hon.’86) and are presented each year to three CFA students in the final semester of their undergraduate or graduate studies. Winners are chosen based on proposals from students detailing how they would use the award to launch their careers, their concern for social issues, and their take on the artist’s role in contemporary society.

Kahn award recipients are chosen by members of the Kahn family and a changing panel of local arts leaders. The 2018 panel comprised Deborah Kahn (SED’67); Harvey Young, CFA dean; Lynne Allen, School of Visual Arts director; Shiela Kibbe, School of Music director ad interim; Jim Petosa, School of Theatre director; and Lynne Cooney (GRS’10,’19), Boston University Art Galleries artistic director.

Past recipients of the award include opera stars Stephen Salters (CFA’91,’94) and Dominique LaBelle (CFA’89), TV and theater scene designer Antje Ellermann (CFA’94), and actor Russell Hornsby (CFA’96).

At 22, Graham is the youngest of the three winners, and she says studying physical theater at BU gave her the freedom to think about her identity as the daughter of a single mother living in Harlem who attended an elite preparatory school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on scholarship.

“It is a type of meditation for me,” she says of physical theater. “I have found a passion for making shapes with my body in order to communicate stories.”

In the short term, Graham plans to stay in Boston and work as an artistic associate at the Front Porch Arts Collective, a new theater company in Jamaica Plain for artists of color. She also plans to join the Double Edge Theatre in western Massachusetts and to spend two weeks in summer 2019 studying physical theater at the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards in Pontedera, Italy. She says she hopes to break new ground for physical theater, which has been practiced in Europe by mostly white European people, and get more people of color involved.

“I’d like black and brown bodies who have a passion for this type of storytelling to start a transnational network,” she says. “I’d like to spearhead a different kind of movement.”

Turkey native Murat Çolak (CFA’18) wants to create something new that responds to prejudices and misconceptions about Islam and Muslim people in much of the world. Photo by Cydney Scott

Çolak is currently producing librettos and compositions for a multimedia opera that envisions a utopian Islamic society in the 23rd century. The project, tentatively titled Virtuous City, involves contemporary electronic sound and performance techniques using historically Turkish instruments.

“It’s a Muslim cyber-punk project,” he says.

Çolak grew up in the small town of Eskisehir, Turkey. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was one of his earliest musical inspirations, although there were also love affairs with heavy metal, Sufi, folk, jazz, and other styles, all of which persuaded him to pursue a PhD at BU and study the classical Western canon.

“My idol was Quincy Jones,” he says of the Grammy Award–winning musician and producer. “I want to conduct and create, but I don’t want to be a performer. I’ve just always wanted to create music and create aesthetics.”

He hopes to use his understanding of Western musical traditions to create something new that responds to prejudices and misconceptions about Islam and Muslim people throughout much of the world. The plan is for his opera to open in Berlin in spring 2020, and that performances in Istanbul and the United States will follow.

Turkey doesn’t have much of a modern art music scene, he says, but he hopes to change that. In the meantime, he is applying for college professorships in the United States. “Culture is shifting, the world is shifting,” he says. “I want to make unapologetically Turkish music with popular touches in a contemporary way.”

Alia Coleman

Alia Coleman (CFA’18) wants to create video with young African and Caribbean art students. She plans to teach them and then “give them free rein in making their own video pieces.” Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

Coleman, a multimedia artist whose work often incorporates new media, will use her grant to create video pieces with help from young African and Caribbean art students.

“I will discuss my concepts, teach them specificities of lighting and camera techniques, and surrender control of the recording to them as I perform my narratives,” she says. “I will teach them video editing skills, culminating in a finished video piece. I want them to experience new media beyond simply being my studio assistants, and I plan to give them free rein in making their own video pieces.”

Raised in London, Coleman came to BU as a UK-US Fulbright Scholar on a mission to make the arts accessible to young people. She is a graduate of the University of Reading.

Her master’s thesis work was on display in April at the 808 Gallery in the 2018 MFA Thesis Exhibitions. Visitors were invited to enter a structure and watch videos of her mouth, painted black, and her white teeth, dotted with charcoal, as she sang and told stories. She says the work explored her life and memories and how they contributed to who she is, but did not explicitly embrace or reject the subject of race.

“My exploration of black is of the ideological and the psychological,” she says. “But my blackness inevitably supplants additional content to my work.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at